I gave C. Robert Cargill’s debut novel Dreams and Shadows three stars on Goodreads. According to the tooltip that appears when you hover your cursor over that middle star, that means I “liked it.” (Two stars means “it was ok,” and four means “really liked it”). In balance, taking into account its strengths and weaknesses, “liked it’ sounds about right.
Many people will enjoy Dreams and Shadows more than I did. Some will enjoy it less. Mostly, this is because every book is made up of language, characterizations, structure, pacing, and story¹, with strong and weak areas, and different people prefer a different balance of those elements. I’m certainly not the deciderer of what makes a good book; this review is simply my considered opinion, phrased in such a way as to help anyone planning a trip to the bookstore or library enough information to make an informed decision.
If it sounds as if I’m dancing around a bit—well, I am. I’d have much preferred to say that I loved the book, that it was amazing. It’s a debut novel, and as someone writing my own first novel, I get how naked and vulnerable an author must feel when putting his or her work up for public consumption. Especially a debut. Oh, Cargill has been writing professionally for some time, as a film critic and co-writer of the screenplay for the 2012 horror movie Sinister. A book is different, though. Once published, it’s there forever, with your name prominently displayed on the dust jacket. An author can’t even plant vines. Regardless, a dishonest review does no one any good, least of all the author. On with it, then.
Dreams and Shadows tells the stories of several people—and fae²—switching between multiple character perspectives, interspersed at convenient intervals with the relevant scholarly writings of one Dr. Thaddeus Ray. Eventually, though, the story focuses on the boy, then man, Colby, and his djinn (genie) Yashar, chronicling their misadventures with the fairy world, a place that is more gristle and marrow than rainbows and unicorns.
That’s a vague summary, I know, but I don’t want to give much of the story away, because plot is central to this book, and there’s plenty of it to go around. Those who mainly want a good story will likely enjoy it because of that. Other areas of strength include the scholarly writings of Dr. Ray, which are particularly well done, and the world-building. Cargill has skillfully woven the threads of his fairy world, just outside Austin, Texas, with other classic fairy tropes, to the point that someone with a moderate amount of knowledge of fae doings, such as myself, would have a hard time pinpointing where the author researched and where he was inventing. (That is a compliment.)
Now … the weak points. The first is characterization, especially of the children. The other characters seem sketchy to me, and that must have been hard to avoid while fitting so many converging storylines into a 400-page novel. But the children, Colby most especially, just don’t ring true. It’s hard to put my finger on it, exactly, other than to say that they seem less like children than like caricatures of children, especially when it comes to dialog. For me, characterization is important, and if the characters are clearly drawn, it’s okay if the author takes a while getting to the point of the story. In Dreams and Shadows, that sense of who the characters were didn’t happen for me, at least not till later on in the book. So that’s one thing.
The other issue is the prose and editing. Language doesn’t matter greatly to some people, but it does to me. Yes, I love elegant prose, thoughtful sentence structure that pays attention to cadence and the rhythms of speech—though in service of a good story, I’ll happily accept prose that is simply workmanlike. But I need it to at least be correct. I need to not have to reread a sentence a few times to guess at the meaning. This was never going to be the kind of book that you pull out just to reread a particularly fine bit of exposition, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But a few dangling modifiers, and in one case, the use of the word infers when the word implies was meant, caused me pain that was nearly physical. Every writer has these little brain farts from time to time, but that should have been caught in editing.
Still … once it got going, once all the threads started coming together, Dreams and Shadows was a pretty good tale. Near the end it felt like a darker version of author Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files series, which I like a lot. I wish it had been more polished, smoother, but especially for a debut novel, it shows strong promise, enough that I will definitely read the sequel, which I believe Cargill is writing now.
¹Probably other things too; I just pulled that list out of the dusty crevices of my brain.
²Stoopid Chrome. Fae is too a word. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fairy